When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I almost stopped consuming food due to complete and utter confusion on what I should be eating. This behavior came as a surprise to myself, as well as my close friends. Even though as a nutritionist, I ate substantially better than most people surviving on the Standard Amerian Diet (“SAD”); despite my training, experience, and knowledge, when I received that diagnosis, I completely froze. The forerunners in cancer nutrition who I respected and studied adhered to a strict vegan diet, and I’d adopted more of a Paleo way of eating, which I thoroughly enjoyed. What can I say? I love meat! Something about the contrast between what I knew to be true about vegan diets (which I was not ready to adopt) aiding in cancer healing and my current Paleo-esque plan put me in a complete tailspin. I didn’t know what to do. So I just stopped eating.
Whatever you do, don’t do what I did. There’s not one right way to eat or one magic diet that works for everyone. Nutrition is a fledgling science. What we know to be true is constantly changing. Not too long ago fat was out. Now it’s in. There’s also a mess of conflicting information out there, and what works for one person isn’t necessarily a fit for you. That’s why there are so many different eaters out there–vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians, Paleo, SAD, pescatarian, and on and on. That said, there are certainly general rules to follow to give your body the best fighting chance. And in order to avoid confusion, as a basic rule and principal, I come back to: you have to listen to your body and know what it needs. Sorry. I know it’s not the answer you want to hear. I also swear by these three concepts, 1) kick the sugar habit, 2) decrease processed foods 3) eat real food (meaning plants and animals).
Most of us can serve to improve what we eat, cancer or no cancer. But if you have been diagnosed with cancer, I highly encourage you to take control of your health by leveling up what you’re putting in your body.
Here are some tips to get you going.
Don’t Stop Eating
I’ll repeat. Don’t do what I did. Eat food. Unless you are doing a fast as part of your healing, guided by a trained professional, do not stop eating food. Food is your fuel. It’s going to give you energy, allow you to make decisions and you need it to live! If you are choosing conventional treatment, there will be days you do not want to smell food let alone eat it. I lost about 8 pounds in less than two weeks before I even started treatment. Going into treatment frail and weak is not a good idea. Writing this feels very rudimentary, but I did it, and if I did it, you might do it too. Don’t. Save your diet for another day.
Eliminate as Much Sugar and Processed Food from Your Diet as Possible
Sugar feeds cancer. You heard me. Sugar feeds cancer.
If grasping this fact is all you take away from this article it will have been a success. This information might be new to you if you are receiving treatment at one of the many cancer centers around the country. Your hospital is likely full of vending machines full of food not fit for your dog, along with tempting sweet treats luring you to indulge pre and post treatment. Your oncologist might recommend you drink wine to reduce stress like mine did. I don’t suggest you take that advice. There are a lot of other good ways to reduce stress like yoga, a funny movie or dancing it out with your bestie. I’m also not saying you can’t ever have a glass of wine, but you might want to scale back if wine was part of your nightly wind down routine.
Plain and simple: Sugar fuels the growth of cancer and causes a whole slew of health problems. Sugar is in everything from the obvious Ben & Jerry’s The Tonight Dough, which replaced (pre-diagnosis) my old favorite Half Baked to foods you may not think of like salad dressing. If you’re not already, start reading labels. If you can’t pronounce the ingredients or the list of stuff in your food goes on forever it’s a clue to put it back on the shelf. To take that a step further, if it wasn’t put here on the earth or didn’t come out of the ground, you might want to reconsider putting it in your mouth.
Eat. Eat. Eat. When You’re Hungry
I have days when I feel like all I do is eat all day long. I have an insatiable hunger. Then there are the days when I feel lucky if I get down my green juice and a smoothie. Don’t worry about losing your girlish figure. If you are hungry, feed your body. My weight has bounced up and down throughout this journey. What’s most important is that more often than not you are giving your body nutrient-dense, healthy foods that will aid in your body’s ability to heal. When food is unappealing or my appetite is failing, I make an effort to get as many nutrients in as possible usually by drinking fresh squeezed juice, homemade smoothies or soup. I also pick these foods up when I’m in a place where I trust the ingredients. In the end, my pig out days are evened out by the days I’m barely eating.
Don’t Beat Yourself Up if You Slip Up
A perfect diet is not going to happen overnight. Or maybe never. Perfection is a lofty goal. There are the holiday parties, the business lunch at your favorite restaurant and your mom’s cookies staring you down. If you’re one of those people who can have an overnight transformation, hooray for you! And please call me and tell me your secret. A complete and immediate overhaul works for some, but not for most. If you’ve been making positive changes, then one day decide to scarf down a rice krispie treat washed down by a Starbucks frappuccino, feeling guilty about it is only going to cause more harm. The stress you create in your body by feeling culpable over what you ate literally can slow or stop your digestion and wreck havoc on your nervous system altogether. So do me a favor. Stop. Slow down. And savor every bite of that forbidden food you’re eating. Being grateful for whatever treat you just enjoyed will have a much better outcome than you stressing over “falling off your plan.” Then get back on that horse and drink and eat your greens. Don’t let one slip-up turn into a cascading waterfall of Cheetos, ice cream, and white Russians.
Great. So What Do I Eat?
I have found this general guideline to be most helpful. Eat a Mediterranean diet composed of 70% vegetables and fruits (in that order) with the remainder of your preferred protein source and healthy fats. The Mayo Clinic defines a Mediterranean diet as follows: The Mediterranean diet emphasizes: Eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. Replacing butter with healthy fats, such as olive oil. Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods. Limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month. Eat the right foods 90% or more of the time, and cheat 10% or less.
Per my rule, I am going to encourage you to listen to your body. What would it like from you? I am constantly switching up what I eat based on what I feel my body needs.We are unique beings, with different wants and needs. As you hone in on what foods make you feel the most energized and vibrant, a meal plan specific to you will emerge. Remember, what works for one person may not work for others.
As much as I love my meat, I have cut back and increased my veggies substantially. While I’m not quite feeling a vegan diet, my body has been craving plant foods. Once you kick the sugar habit and eliminate most processed foods your body will naturally crave what’s good for it.
To wrap things up, your treatment will likely play a role in what you eat. I am very gentle with myself on my treatment days. If pizza is the only thing that doesn’t make me want to gag, that’s what I eat. I know that in a few days I’ll be eating copious amounts of greens in various forms, detoxing, exercising and making other good choices. Do your best! And always be kind to yourself.
If making changes to your diet it is important to you, and it should be, you are going to need to take this into your own hands. Read. Consult the Google. Hire a nutritionist. Do whatever you need to do to eat the best foods possible. As Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
PS If most of this post sounded like gibberish to you, it’s time to overhaul your Standard American Diet and start eating real, whole foods, that are nutrient-dense. Specifics to come on how to do this soon!